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Octavio Ramos Jr. is a lifelong fan of all things horror. In his teens, he began to write reviews of horror movies. Since college, he has been writing fiction in the horror genre, as well as writing reviews and commentary on every facet of horror for magazines such as Video Vista, The Zone, Horrorshow, and Albuquerque Horror Examiner. Contact him for movie reviews and interviews at email@example.com.
Hold the Dark: Examining the Nature of the Pack
By Octavio Ramos Jr.
The basic structure of the story goes like this: In the Alaskan wilderness, young Bailey Sloane (Beckham Crawford) is supposedly abducted by wolves. His grieving mother Medora (Riley Keough) realizes her son is likely dead, but she wants to exact revenge on the wolf that took him. To this end, she contacts Russell Core, who once tracked down such as a pack of wolves and killed them (he also wrote a book about his experience). Medora wants such revenge exacted before her husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) returns from serving in Afghanistan. Medora also informs Core that her son’s abduction is the third that has happened recently, perhaps by the same wolf pack.
After spending an awkward night with Mrs. Sloane, Core sets out to track the pack of wolves, finding them after some effort. Still a bit of a greenhorn, Core exposes himself to the wolves, which at first make ready to attack. However, the alpha prevents the attack, staring down Core. It is a moment of pure fertility with an understanding of mercy, a key theme of the movie.
Although told as an investigative thriller, with an emphasis on the thriller over a typical police procedural, Hold the Dark delves into the supernatural, not once using it overtly but rather taking from it subtle cues to advance the plot and symbols to create an atmospheric and disturbing superstructure.
The supernatural device is the shape-shifter, which some Intuit refer to as the “Adlet.” This creature is a result of an unnatural mating between an Inuit woman and a dog, resulting in a “werewolf.” What is interesting here is that the source novel, and the movie to a more subtle degree, hint that the Sloanes are actually twin siblings, thus Bailey is the result of an “unnatural mating.” In the movie, the creature is called a Tournaq, a wolf-demon.
It is from this kernel that the theme of wolves is explored from various angles. The Intuit living with the Sloanes have welcomed the darkened nature of Vernon Sloane, particularly the character known as Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope), a shaman who believes that Vernon has within him a wolf. To help viewers along, both Medora and Vernon don wolf masks when accessing their inner wolves, often with violent results.
One of the movie’s key sequences has Cheeon use a machinegun against a group of green police officers led by Police Chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale). The resultant carnage yields a terrible body count, with Marium at last squatting off against Cheeon. Rather than let the police take him, Cheeon forces Marium to shoot him dead.
Although the sequence is intense and filled with tension, it does display the feral nature and pack mentality of wolves. Through dialogue and action, director Jeremy Saulnier and screenwriter Macon Blair show that Cheeon will buy time for his “pack-brother” Vernon to track down his wife before the police do. Cheeon does this violently, juxtaposing his act with the bloodstained faces of wolves eating a wolf pup to retain the feral order of things.
There are some truly stunning facets of magic realism in this movie, some of which will likely confuse viewers. One of the most precious is the movie’s end, where Vernon and Medora, having recovered the buried body of the couple’s son, make their way into the wilderness, ostensibly pursued by a pair of wolves. This sequence can be seen in one of two possible ways: (1) the wolves are coming to kill Vernon and Medora, who because of their unnatural union realize they have no place in civilization or (2) Veron and Medora are the wolves, who at last can return to their own pack waiting for them after a harrowing ordeal.
Another facet of wolf nature is that of the pack and the outside. Outsiders are dealt with one of two ways: they are violently dispatched or they are spared. When an outsider discovers the secrets held dear to the pack, they must die. Such is the case with the “old witch” Illanaq (Tantoo Cardinal), who knows that Medora has killed her own child, and Tapper John (Pete McRobbie), who knows that the Sloanes are siblings (the Sloanes’ parents came to John when the siblings were young and asked him for wolf oil to cure his “unnatural” tendencies”). Both are brutally murdered by Vernon.
The one spared is Russell Core, principally because he truly understands the nature of wolves and is unwilling to kill them after his first experience. Core is there to tell the story of the Sloane couple, and indeed at the end of the movie he prepares to just that from a hospital bed to his estranged daughter. It is a tender moment, one that demonstrates the mercy of wolf packs (Core is not savaged but rather spared by a wolf pack, so that a father and boy can save him). As Core is taken to heal in an Inuit hut filled with women, the boy turns back to core and utters, “You were spared.”
Yet another wolf characteristic is the concept of savaging, killing a younger member of the pack and devouring yet so that a wolf pack can survive during times of famine or simply to restore the order of things within a pack. When Medora calls on Core to kill the wolf that killed her son, she is speaking symbolically. She wants Core to kill her, literally at one point placing his hands around her neck to do so. When he will not do it, she yearns for Core to kill her husband (the alpha) so that she can clear up the “problem with the sky.” In the end, Core does not kill Vernon, who in turn also spares him from death, likely because Vernon knows that Core knows but also understands his unnatural state. In the end, Medora also has to accept her role in the wolf pack, demonstrating loyalty to the alpha. It is also implied that she is pregnant with another child, but that this time the couple—in leaving civilization—has at last embraced its wolf-like nature.
There are many more examples of what it is to be “wolf-kind” as a human, but I will leave those to be discovered by those intrigued by the examples I have presented.
Underscoring some of the storytelling are facets of reality that are horrifying and likely masked over by the supernatural. For example, the movie states that three kids have been taken by wolves. During the movie, careful viewers may find that likely none of the kids were taken. The Sloanes’ son was murdered by his mother, Cheeon’s daughter may have died by accidental neglect (and Cheeon ultimately commits suicide by cop), and the third kid also succumbed to the wilderness rather than by wolves. It is a disturbing idea, one better explained through wolf-demons and shape-shifters.
Another examination is the antipathy demonstrated by humans, particularly when juxtaposed with wolves. Yes, wolves can be savage, but such savagery is underscored with purpose. On the other hand, human savagery often takes the form of indifference. When Cheeon calls the police (insider vs. outside) to report his missing daughter, they show up a full daylight and take a report, providing no search parties or other follow-up actions. Such indifference is what leads Cheeon to exact revenge on the police when they at last take action with Vernon’s missing son.
Thought-provoking, provocative, and exhilarating, Hold the Dark nevertheless is a challenging film, principally because it does not rely on conventional storytelling to unravel a traditional plot with a satisfactory conclusion. Instead, the movie sprinkles hints throughout to tell an uncharacteristic tale that is neither based in the supernatural or the conventions what we call reality. Even the wolf story hinted at during the movie’s opening sequences is abandoned, only to come back later to fill in themes set forth at the begging.
It is a challenging approach, and indeed many may not have the time or inclination to unravel the puzzles that provide some answers. For those who are interested, they may find that Hold the Dark is an excellent but subtle thriller, one told in a new way that even the source novel cannot match.